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2009 Continental Divide Trail Thru-Hike


What is it:



For starters, the Continental Divide Trail is not a trail it is a route. Maybe it is not even a route but more of an idea.

The CDT is a connection of existing trails, jeep tracks, goat paths, and cross country traverses that attempts to roughly follow the Continental Divide through the Rocky mountains from Canada to Mexico. The divide itself is the ridge where water on one side flows to the Pacific Ocean, and water on the other side flows to the Atlantic via the Gulf of Mexico.

You might think of the CDT like a Choose your own Adventure book. Technically there might be an "official route" but I can assure you that no one has ever followed it exactly. There is a semi-official route described in Jim Wolf's CDT guidebooks, and several routes and alternatives on the Jonathan Ley CDT maps. There are multiple acceptable places to start at the Canadian Border, and multiple acceptable places to end at the Mexican border. Almost every single day on the CDT you are presented with choices of where to go. For example one route might go cross-country up and over a high mountain peak, and another route might ford a river 15 times while following a lower valley trail. Sometimes the routes separate for a few miles and reconnect, other times they can separate for 100's of miles before joining back up. If you tried you could probably hike the CDT twice with very little overlap.

Due to the nature of the CDT much of it is not marked and you must rely on your maps, compass, and the Wolf guide books to find your way. There will be many times when you aren't 100% sure exactly where you are, and that is just fine.

The important thing in my opinion is that you walk a continuous path every single step from Canada to Mexico.

When:



The CDT can be walked Northbound or Southbound. I chose Southbound because the Wolf Guidebooks and Ley maps are oriented for a Southbound hike. On a Southbound hike you start at the Montana/Canada Border in Glacier National Park. Hikers generally start in mid to late June to allow enough snow to melt off the mountain trails and passes. You have to move right along though or you will not make it through the San Juan mountains in Colorado before the snows start in late September. The trail finishes at the New Mexico / Mexican boarder. A Southbound thru-hike can be extremely cold in some sections.

I started on June 17th at the Canadian border and finished on November 17th at the Mexican border. About 5 months in total.

From what I am told, a Northbound hike is warmer than going South. However most Northbound hikers go around or skip the San Juan Mountains because they are too snowed in in the spring. They have to move quickly to reach Glacier Park before it gets snowed in in September.

If I were to do it again I would consider going North to avoid the extreme cold I faced going south.

This is what My CDT Hike was like:



I started hiking on June 17th in Glacier National Park Montana. There was packed snow on the ground frequently for the first week or so through Glacier and into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I crossed Triple Divide pass in a white out blizzard that dumped a half foot of snow on June 22nd. I hiked for 21 days completely alone before meeting my first long distance hiker.

The weather was nice through southern Montana and Idaho, but there were constant swarms of mosquitoes all the way south to Yellowstone, Wyoming in August.

The Wind River range in central Wyoming was spectacular, with glaciers and fresh snow. Night time temperatures hit the teens there on August 15th in the middle of the summer. The mosquitoes finally disappeared.

The Red Desert in southern Wyoming was flat and barren with almost no shade whatsoever. Daytime highs hit the 90s and water was scarce or gross.

My wife Sheryl joined me in Rawlins, WY on August 24th about half way through the trail. I had been hiking solo prior to this.

Colorado started great on September 1st. The mountains were huge, the weather nice, and the aspens golden.

Snow started falling on September 21st midway through Colorado and nighttime temps got cold.

In the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado we were nailed with several blizzards. We broke trail through a foot to waist deep snow for days at a time. Night time temperatures hit the single digits, and some days the temperature never went above freezing. Only five southbound thru-hikers including Sheryl and I made it through the San Juans without bailing out or going around that year. Only a couple north-bounders that I know of made it through in the spring.

The CDT is not an easy trail. By comparison, it probably only snowed once or twice each on the AT and PCT, and never went below 20F.

The weather improved almost overnight at the New Mexico border on October 15th. We had a few lingering snow showers, but mostly sunny skies, and easy cruising all the way to Mexico. Water was scarce again in the desert, sometimes 30-35 miles apart but the cool November temperatures made it easier to travel with little water.

We finished at the Mexican border on November 17th, 2009 with a huge group of 16 hikers, which is a rare crowd for the CDT. Samurai Joe (myself), Hellfire (Sheryl), Brett, Bree, Freefall, Agent Orange (George), Luna, Chance, SoFar, Valley Girl, Panda, Brian, Brenda, Max Relax (Mike), Patch, and Tooth Fairy all completed together. Beacon, and The Gimp also finished ahead of the group south bound that year. That list of 18 hikers was pretty much the entire class of southbound thru-hikers in 2009. The CDT can be a lonely trail if you want it to be, but we had a great time with alot of camaraderie on the second half of our hike.

Logistically

the CDT is one of the hardest trails to do. Since there is not a single defined route or many markers it requires alot of navigational skill. I learned to use a map and compass my first few days on the trail by necessity. Many sections are cross-country or the trail might be buried under snow. Relatively few hikers do the CDT (and those who do may take different routes) so you can be completely alone for long stretches. Many sections are very remote. You will often find yourself misplaced and backtrack.

You could use a GPS or SPOT but I did not have those.

Resupply is generally 4-6 days between towns, and you will have to do some food mail-drops to places that do not have stores. The longest section of my hike was 9 days through the Wind River range in Wyoming.

Water sources are scarce and unreliable in New Mexico. Our longest section between water was about 40 miles. We were only expecting that particular section to be 25 miles but a well was dry.

Physically

the CDT can be pretty challenging. It depends on which routes you take, but it can often involve steep scrambling up and down mountainsides, climbing over miles of downed trees, and following treacherous ravines or avalanche zones. You will ford more rivers in one day than on the entire AT and PCT combined. You may hike for days through snow storms, or across miles of feet-deep snow from last year's snow pack. If you injure yourself on certain off-trail sections of the CDT there is a good chance no one will ever find you. You could choose routes that are not as balls-to-the-wall but what fun is that! As they say on the CDT "Embrace the Brutality".

The CDT has scenery that is as good or better than the PCT but you may have to work 10x harder for it.

Weather:



A southbound CDT hike is cold. It snowed on me every single month that I was on the trail from June to November. Our thermometer read 7F inside our tent at one point in Colorado. We were hit with blizzards and hiked for days in several feet of snow. The weather on the CDT is unpredictable, it can rain or storm at any time. We set up our tent almost every night. You can get hail and lightning and insane winds. Sometimes it is nice.

What I would carry if I were to do it again today:

You need to be prepared for rain storms, snow storms, and frigid weather on the CDT. It would have been much harder to do some of the sections with a heavy backpack, due to all the climbing and scrambling involved.

This list would be for a solo Southbound hike. I feel that it is *pretty light* without making many compromises in comfort.

Updated Continental Divide Trail Gear List:

OuncesPacking System
2152L Arc Blast Backpack
1Pair Shoulder Pouches
1.5Pair Belt Pouches
OuncesShelter System
20.0Duplex Tent
2.18x Carbon Tent Stakes w/ stake sack
OuncesSleeping System
20.9ZPacks 10F Reg, Long Down Sleeping Bag
1.3Goose Hood
1Medium-Plus Dry Bag
8Neoair Xlite Pad, size small
OuncesCooking System
3.3.6L Evernew Pot
.2Titanium short handle spoon
.5Lightload Towel
.4Mini-Bic Lighter
.2Homemade Alcohol Stove
.58 oz fuel bottle
1.4Roll top Blast Food Bag
OuncesWater Storage
1.51 Quart Powerade Bottle
1.51 Quart Powerade Bottle
1.32L Sawyer Bladder
1.32L Sawyer Bladder
1.3Sawyer Mini Filter
OuncesMiscellaneous Items
5Pentax W60 Waterproof Camera
12x Spare Camera Battery
1.5Pak-Light w/ homemade headband
.7Wenger Esquire Pocket Knife
.5Silva Compass / Thermometer
.3ZPacks Travel Toothbrush
.8Travel size toothpaste tube.
.3Credit Card, License, Cash in Wallet pouch
.950ft 1.75mm Z-Line cord (repairs, bear bag)
.44x Mini-D Carabiners
.2Mechanical pencil, paper for notes
.3Chap Stick
.01Ear plugs
.8Sunglasses
.1Ibuprofen
OuncesGear Repair
.63x strips of Cuben Fiber Repair Tape
.16x Large safety pins
.1Sewing Needles, dental floss thread
OuncesCarried Clothing
4.5Challenger Rain Jacket
3.8Challenger Rain Pants
3Seal Skinz Gloves
4.5Seal Skinz Socks
.9ZPacks Fleece Hat
3Wool Hat w/ Ear Flaps
1Fleece Neck Warmer
1.9ZPacks Wind Shell Jacket
8.9ZPacks Climashield insulated Jacket (coming soon)
.9Ultamax Triathlete low cut socks (spare)
1.7Medium Pillow Dry Bag
OuncesWorn Items (Not part of base weight)
10.2Columbia Silver Ridge II Zip off pants
7.3Champion long sleeve, breathable shirt
.9Ultamax Triathlete low cut socks
3.5Patagonia boxers
3.9ZPacks Pointy Hat
1.5Velocity Visor
23Teva Grecko Sandals
7.3ZPacks Carbon Fiber Staff
OuncesTotal Base Weight
136.98 lbs 8.9 ounces (3.8 kg)
Comments

The 52L Arc Blast backpack is large enough to hold 5-6 days of food in addition to this gear list. For longer sections I would lash my tent or clothes to the outside of my pack and carry more food inside. The Arc Blast can handle the occasional 30-35 lb load that I would carry on longer sections of the CDT. I store most of my small miscellaneous items in the shoulder pouches and belt pouches.

I chose the Duplex tent because I would likely set it up almost every night and it has a little more space. The air and views on both sides are nice, and it closes off well for the common wind and rain.

I chose a 10F sleeping bag because I would likely freeze without it. I would plan to sleep in all of my carried clothing some nights.

I chose rain pants and a jacket because they are necessary for the cold rain and snow storms. I can also sleep in them for warmth, and wear them when I do my laundry.

I chose an alcohol stove because it is lightweight and fuel (Heat gas line antifreeze) is easy to come by at most gas stations. I mainly cook simple things like instant noodles, mashed potatoes, and the occasional cook-in-the-bag meal.

I normally don't use any water filtration or treatment at all, but the Sawyer Mini is so light it is worth having for the nastiest water sources. I did get sick a few times on my thru-hikes due to not treating any water.

My clothing system is arranged such that I can and would wear every item at once when needed. All my clothing is synthetic, quick drying, and stays warm when wet. I do not carry any "change" of clothes and I sleep in the same clothes I hike in.

I hiked all of my thru-hikes 100% in sandals. Sandals aren't for everyone, but they keep my feet cool, dry and comfortable. You do have to be a little more careful and light on your feet. The sealskin socks and gloves are heavy and take a long time to dry, but they kept me from getting frostbite in the snow.

I would consider mail dropping some of the warm gear ahead during the warmer months before Colorado.

What I actually carried in 2009:



I did the first half of the CDT alone. My girlfriend (now wife) Sheryl joined me at roughly the half way point and finished the hike with me.

I had been running ZPacks for about four years at this point out of my apartment, and Cuben Fiber was still considered "unreliable/untested" by many people. I tested our first Cuben Fiber tent model, the Hexamid Solo on this trip.

I used a 20F sleeping bag for the first half, and when Sheryl joined we added a homemade 30F Twin Quilt layered on top of the 20F bag. We only had our Hexamid Solo tent so we squeezed into that together. A Twin tent or Duplex would have been pretty nice but those hadn't been created yet.

We basically had 3-season / summer gear and were not really prepared for the level of snow and cold that we ran into in Colorado. The list below represents what we had during the coldest part. We carried less in the summer and added more warm gear as we went.

Despite our tiny backpacks and homemade untested gear we were 2 of only 5 southbound hikers to make it through the snow in the San Juan mountains without resorting to road walking or skipping around the mountains that year.

2009 Continental Divide Trail Gear List

OuncesPacking System
5.5Prototype "Blast" Cuben Fiber Backpack
.3Shoulder Pouch
.7Pair Belt Pouches
1.2Pack Liner
OuncesShelter System
8.2Hexamid Solo tent prototype
7Tyvek Groundsheet
1.98x Ultralight Stakes
OuncesSleeping System
2220F Solo Quilt
Layered w/ 30F Twin Quilt (shared)
.4Large Cuben Fiber Stuff Sack
3.120" x 45" x 1/4" Closed Cell Foam Pad
OuncesCooking System
3.8.9L Evernew Pot (Shared)
.2Titanium Short Handle Spoon
.2Homemade Alcohol stove
.8Blast Food Bag
OuncesWater Storage
1.61L Soda Bottle
1.61L Soda Bottle
1.43L Platypus Bottle
0No water treatment
OuncesMiscellaneous Items
5Pentax W60 Waterproof Camera
1.7Pak-lite Headlamp w/ strap
.6Compass / Thermometer
.8Half toothbrush + paste
.4Mini Bic Lighter
.3Sewing needles, dental floss thread
.42x Mini-D Carabiners
.7Wenger Esquire Pocket Knife
.5Lightload Towel
.3Chap Stick
.2Small roll of Duct Tape
.3Credit Card, Driver's License in Wallet Pouch
OuncesCarried Clothing
2.4Homemade Wind Shirt
9.1Homemade Climashield Insulated Jacket
11.5Homemade Long Rain Jacket
1Cuben Fiber Chaps
3Seal Skinz Gloves
4.5Seal Skinz Socks
.9Fleece Hat
3Wool Hat w/ Ear Flaps
1Fleece Neck Warmer
1Sunglasses (for snow glare)
.2Medium Cuben Fiber Stuff Sack
OuncesWorn Items (Not part of base weight)
C9 / Champion shirt w/ collar and cuffs for sun protection
Columbia Silver Ridge II convertible pants
Pointy Hat
Ultimax Triathelete Socks
Teva Grecko Sandals
Carbon Fiber Walking Staff
OuncesTotal Base Weight
108.76 lbs 12.7 oz / 3.08 kg